Independent Sleep and Gentle Parenting: Sleep Training


Can gentle parenting and sleep training co-exist?

Sleep training is cruel. According to Facebook experts all over the Gentle Parenting sites, parents who sleep-train are cold-hearted and neglectful; abusive, even.

I mean, babies are tossed into a cold, dark room, on a cold, hard mattress for heaven’s sake. There’s nothing gentle about that.

Reading random comments and anti-sleep-training articles on the internet will have you believe that parents who let their children “cry it out” at bedtime are throwing their babies in a cold, dark dungeon, promptly at 7 pm every night just so we can drink wine and laugh at their cries.

Is that really what happens, though?

No. That is a narrative perpetuated by the gentle parenting and attachment parenting communities. It sells books, courses, and baby products.

The Montessori community seems to be pretty much split evenly on this subject. It mostly just comes down to personal interpretation of the research about sleep training and personal preference.

yawning baby

Will sleep training hurt my baby?

Well, I’m all about research and evidence. As far as research of parenting practices and their long-term effects on children, the “evidence” that the anti- sleep-training crowd uses to justify their (sometimes dangerous) sleeping practices, and to bash sleep-training parents, is weak at best.

The studies are poorly conducted and the synopses are heavily biased and, for a lover of science, difficult to read.

To say that setting a bedtime, after a long day of bonding and love, can cause lifelong brain damage is ridiculously…well…ridiculous.

And here science is to back me up.

What is sleep training?

Let me paint a more accurate picture for you of what sleep-training really is:

The evening routine commences with a relaxing bath and some soothing lotion, maybe even a little massage to relax those muscles that worked so hard, rolling and crawling all day. Then, we put some nice, warm pajamas on, taking care to make sure no hair is wrapped around tiny toes.

A favorite book is read. The baby’s room is set to a comfortable temperature and the crib is cleared of anything potentially harmful. The light is turned off, leaving a calm-inducing atmosphere, lit only by a nightlight. Mom might nurse, or either parent might offer a bottle while humming or singing a familiar lullaby. Then, before the sweet baby is laid in his crib, awake, mom and dad give a gentle kiss and say goodnight. This is where gentle parenting and sleep training meet.

Now, up until this point, your little angel has gotten used to being bounced, rocked, sleeping in your bed, or whatever arrangement you had. So, they are going to be upset at this change.

Being upset isn’t going to hurt them, though.

They may wake up to eat, and, of course, you go in there and feed them. Then you lay them back down, awake. They are again going to be upset, but not as upset as they were at bedtime.

Rinse and repeat, and after a few nights, there will be no tears. Your baby might even smile as you lay them down.

This, now, is their new routine, and they appreciate no deviation from it. Just like with their old routine!

Mother bathing baby. A relaxing bath is where gentle parenting and sleep training meet.

How to make bedtime easy

From there on out, bedtime will be a breeze! They will love it, and it is easier on you, as well!

There is usually some crying involved in sleep training, and that is why it is not considered a “gentle” parenting practice. But there is crying involved in other gentle parenting practices, including co-sleeping. We “allow our children to express their emotions” at other times. We set boundaries, say no, and don’t give in to every whim, even if a river of tears ensues. But bedtime is somehow different?

Babies can figure out not to pull the dog’s tail, not to hit mommy, that we need to be buckled up in our car seat, but we think they are unable to understand how bedtime works?

You see, when I had my first child I very much bought into the “science” of Attachment Parenting. I slept with my daughter in the bed with me and it was nice…for a little while.

Then, simply nursing wasn’t enough for her to fall back to sleep at night. She wanted to rock. So we rocked and nursed. But that wasn’t enough. She wanted to walk the halls, but not just walk ..she wanted deep knee bends.  I am not talking about a 5lb newborn. I’m talking about a 6-month-old! We would do this dance at bedtime, during feedings, and after every feeding, which was about 4 times a night!

Exhausted mother holding crying baby. Gentle parenting and sleep training.

Then something terrible happened. I was so bleary-eyed and exhausted that I dropped her. She was fine, but it was a real wake-up call for me.

If she was happy co-sleeping, then why didn’t she seem happy co-sleeping? She didn’t seem to like being in my bed at all, in fact.

And then there was my husband. He was struggling with where he fits into our new family.

So, basically, nobody was happy with this arrangement. This “gentle” method of parenting didn’t seem so gentle for our family, anyway.

This is what the Attachment Parenting/Evolutionary Parenting movements ignore; not every child sleeps well with their parents and bed-sharing is 1) unsafe and 2) often not desirable for the rest of the family.

So, the takeaway here is to do what works for your family. If that stops working, try something else.

Being a mother is difficult, and many mothers spend the early months at home, which comes with struggles of its own for many.

Attachment and sleep-training

There is a ton of controversy around encouraging independent sleep, especially in the Attachment Parenting segment of the parenting population.

(To clarify, Attachment Theory and Attachment Parenting are two separate things. Not a lot of people seem to know that!

The Attachment Theory is a valid scientific theory that basically says that a secure, healthy attachment to a caregiver in the early years of a child’s life is necessary for optimal development.

Attachment Parenting is simply an evolution of the Attachment Theory.) 

Love your baby, comfort your baby, talk to your baby, show them affection throughout the day...and they will know that you love them. They will also come to know that nights are for sleep.

And what a gift for your child! Their own sleep space and a full night’s sleep! What a wonderful taste of independence; a Montessori cornerstone.

Dr. Montessori’s thoughts on child sleep

Dr. Montessori had some thoughts on children’s sleep habits. She fantasized that a child should sleep when they want and wake when they please. Here is where I part with the good doctor.

During the time she wrote these musings, parents were still being told by physicians to keep babies on a strict schedule and to not spoil their children with too much affection.

My own grandmother told me that as a baby, she was picked up and held by the clock, fed by the clock, and put back in her cot by the clock.

It is very likely Dr. Montessori was raging against this particular machine. And she was right to fight it! I’m pro-schedule/routine, but this was extreme, in my opinion.

But, much time has passed since then and, although some parents do still adhere to schedules for their little ones, they are loose schedules; more like routines. Many of these schedules/routines are based on the cues of the child and the needs of the child.

Adequate sleep is a need.

How much sleep do kids need?

Much research has been done since Dr. Montessori’s words were printed. We know a lot more about the sleep needs of children than was known in her time.

Here are the current recommendations on the sleep needs of children ages 0-5:

Newborns (0-3 months)
14-17 hours

Infants (4-11 months)
12-15 hours

Toddlers (1-2 years)
11-14 hours

Preschoolers (3-5 years)
10-13 hours

Sleep training and Montessori

There is much propaganda regarding the cortisol levels of children during sleep training, but elevated cortisol levels are only harmful over an extended period of time, such as chronic sleep deprivation, extended maternal separation, and physical and emotional neglect.

As stated earlier, sleep training typically involves a few new nights of protesting at bedtime, then years of easy bedtimes and restful sleep. Many parents continue nursing their babies when they wake hungry; needs are not ignored. There is absolutely no evidence that cortisol levels remain elevated beyond the short period of sleep learning.

Also, something you should understand about the hormone, cortisol, is that it is a hormone associated with learning. Your child’s cortisol levels will elevate when they are learning to grab objects with their hands, when they are learning to crawl, walk, talk, ECT. Cortisol, in and of itself, is not a bad hormone, in moderation!

I respect Maria Montessori’s evidence-based findings. However, her conclusions on child sleep were not evidence-based, but rather idealistic.

In fact, Dr. Montessori bore a son and did not parent him until his teenage years. While I understand her predicament at the time, I wonder if caring for her son from the beginning of his life into adulthood would have shaped her views differently.

What are the effects of sleep deprivation?

I am a Montessori enthusiast, but I am a scientist, as well.

Here is a little food for thought, for those of you that are interested:

Lack of sufficient sleep is linked to cognitive and behavioral issues.
Sleep that occurs early in the night tends to be more restorative.
Sleep schedules are healthy.
Sleep training causes no damage to your child.

So, you see gentle parenting and sleep training can co-exist.

Mother and father kissing baby goodnight

If your little one is getting proper sleep in a bed with the parents, great. If not, then relieve yourself of guilt and give them the gift of proper sleep.

It’s a controversial topic, I know. I’d sure like to hear your views!

Cheers and don’t forget to subscribe!

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12 thoughts on “Independent Sleep and Gentle Parenting: Sleep Training”

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  4. I sleep-trained my twins this way at 4 months, and they have been AMAZING sleepers since (they’re almost 5 now!). We are ALL about Montessori in our house too! Thank you for a great informative article!

  5. Oh, the irony: you take the baby out of the family bed just so your husband could cuddle with you, because he, the grown man, can’t handle not being close to his loved one. I understand the struggle with restful sleep. I didn’t cosleep with my first child until she was 14 month old. We had solid daytime and bedtime routines but she was still waking 2-4 times a nigh, and my back couldn’t handle getting her in and out of the crib so much. As a result, we bedshared from 14 months to 3 years. And your husband not fitting into his new family… my husband felt the same way, while our daughter was peacefully sleeping in the crib in her very own room. It definitely was a learning curve for us to be a family of 3. Just like you said, every family is different.

    1. Every family is definitely different. We didn’t sleep train so my husband could cuddle with me…I have trouble sleeping with other people in the bed, even my husband. My child was the one suffering the most from bed sharing. As soon as she was in her own space and getting a good night’s sleep, her development and her mood immediately improved. The photos I have of her prior to sleep training show her with pink around her eyes and the post sleep training photos show her as happy as can be!

      My children know they are always welcome in my bed. My daughter, as well as my 3 year old, will often end up snuggled up to me a couple times a week and I’m totally fine with it.

      I think the most important idea is that everyone is happy and getting great rest, however that looks within the family unit. Nobody should suffer because of fearmongering and misrepresented studies.

  6. Sue,
    I absolutely agree with getting good nighttime rest! And I’m glad that sleep training enabled your daughter to be a happier little person ? I have looked into Dr. Gordon’s (I think that’s the right name) gentle sleep training methods, but never resorted to it. Who knows though!
    I guess the tone of your post turned me off. It came across as condescending towards those who bed-share. While you acknowledge that every family does what works best for them, it’s important to note that bed sharing is not dangerous if practiced properly (I’m referring to La Leche League’s safe co-sleeping guidelines).
    Also, I’d like to apologize for my snapping husband comment. It was one of those mornings after the restless night with a teething 9 month old, and 4 year old requesting snuggles in the middle of the night at the same time.

  7. It’s not the crying that most gentle parents mind (trying to prevent or stop any crying in a baby or child is not what defines gentle and would be considered manipulative in many people’s view but i think this does get misunderstood) it’s the belief that you don’t leave a baby or child alone while they cry. In gentle parenting approaches being present, even if you don’t feel you want to pick them up/ they need to be picked up, is believed to be essential for them to have the experience that their feelings are being contained. It can also be referred to as ‘holding space’ for those feelings. One is not holding space if one has left them alone in the room. There are lots of arguments for and against of course but i feel the ‘simplicity’ of the article evades being honest about a key dividing fact among many sleep trainers vs ‘gentle’ or attachment’ or even RIE parenting styles – that (i assume?) the sleep training parent leaves her child alone to cry.

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